Eggs in a carton where one has a worried expression and the other's is upset.

What To Do When One Partner Is Unhappy With The Marriage

Isn’t it bliss when both of you are on the same page of your romance novel, coursing arm-in-arm toward happily ever after? Everything is copacetic, and even the bumps along the way read more like Singing-in-the-Rain skips. “No biggie, we’ve got this.” But – big sigh – you know life and marriage are rarely so easy. And, when one partner is unhappy with the marriage, life can feel more like being stuck in the rain than singing in it.

The thing about unhappiness is that you usually don’t recognize it creeping up on you until it’s all-consuming. The recognition seems to happen more in hindsight than foresight.

What constitutes an unhappy marriage is very similar.

If you take a passive, as-long-as-we-don’t-do-xyz approach to your relationship, you’ll leave it wide open for a slow, insidious erosion.

It will be the little things. The “one-time” decision to simply avoid conversation. The “one-time” withholding of affection. The “one-time” consideration that perhaps you had made a mistake in marrying this person. 

There will be the slipping away of dreams, sex, curiosity, friendship, respect.

And there will be the many ways that an unhappy marriage affects you – emotionally and even physically.

In our marriage retreats, we work with couples who come to us at various places along the spectrum of marital satisfaction and happiness.

Yes, many come for some good preventive medicine.

Even more come because their marriage is in crisis or because they are both unhappy – with one another, with their marriage, and usually within themselves.

They may have different dissatisfactions – one wants sex, the other doesn’t; one bids for communication, the other ignores; one controls, the other feels trapped.

And yet, even in those differences, they recognize an unlivable tension. A tension that comes from trying to stay together while an unidentified undercurrent causes them to drift apart.

But there is another scenario that needs its own sensitive handling.

When one partner is unhappy with the marriage, there is a risk that s/he will assume s/he is somehow flawed or to blame for the apparent one-sided unhappiness.

There is also a risk that the other partner won’t recognize the unhappiness or will assume “the problem” belongs to the unhappy spouse.

If you’re a man, would you recognize the signs that a woman is unhappy in her marriage?

If you’re a woman, would you recognize the same signs in yourself? For example:

  • Have you lost interest in sex and physical affection?
  • Have you given up trying to communicate because you just don’t feel heard?
  • Do you feel held back by your spouse and marriage?
  • Have you stopped taking care of yourself, both in your health and in your appearance?
  • Do you find yourself longing for the past when life was simpler and less stressful?
  • Do you prefer to talk with someone outside your marriage instead of your husband?
  • Have you noticed signs of depression like sleeping more/less, eating more/less, losing interest in things that once interested you, and feeling hopeless?
  • Are you or your spouse drinking more than usual?
  • Do you go out of your way to avoid spending time together? Or do you feel avoided and not prioritized by your spouse?

Obviously, these signs aren’t limited to the woman when one person is unhappy with the marriage. Unhappiness, dissatisfaction, disinterest, and hopelessness have no gender bias.

What matters is that the unhappiness doesn’t get ignored, and especially that neither spouse uses it as a justification for blame.

Here are some important steps to take if either partner is unhappy with the marriage.

  • If you are the unhappy spouse,

    identify the reasons for your unhappiness.

  • If you are the other spouse,

    pay attention to the cues that your partner may be unhappy and become your most compassionate self.

    Acknowledge, without judgment or blame, that your spouse doesn’t seem happy and that you want to help change that.

  • Decide if your marriage is worth saving and if there are any deal-breakers that must be dealt with.

    Issues like addiction, abuse, control, overworking, criticism, lack of communication, and disparate core values may signal deeper issues that affect you both differently.

  • Talk about your feelings.

    And, if you are the “not unhappy” spouse, ask your partner to share his/her feelings. And make the experience safe for vulnerability.

  • If you are the unhappy spouse,

    make an appointment with your physician to ensure you don’t have underlying health issues.

    Often depression, fatigue, lowered libido, irritability, etc. can be attributed to hormonal and/or treatable reasons.

    Menopause, for example, brings on a tsunami of often shocking changes. Who am I? Who is she? What the hell is going on?

    But midlife changes aren’t limited to women, despite a difference in the speed of onset. Men, you, too, go through hormonal changes that affect you physically, sexually, and emotionally.

  • Be willing to go to therapy together.

    Better yet, try something more effective – even exciting – and attend a marriage retreat weekend.

  • Take positive and purposeful time apart –

    not for the purpose of avoiding one another, but for nurturing yourself and (re-)cultivating your own interests and hobbies.

    If you see that your spouse is drowning in unhappiness, encourage and support his/her individual hobbies that may have gone by the wayside. And be curious and complimentary.

    Even a few well-intended, supported hours apart can ease tension and build desire for one another.

  • Pull out the stops on kindness.

    It may sound too simple to be effective. But so often one partner is unhappy in a marriage because of feeling unappreciated, unheard, even “invisible.”

    You don’t have to talk about “what’s wrong” all the time. Sometimes you can simply tend to it with extra kindness, love, and awareness…and little surprises along the way.

    Think that unexpected bouquet of hand-picked flowers or those courtside tickets “just because” won’t create a lasting high? Check out the magic that happens to your brain when you’re pleasantly surprised.

The dance of marriage doesn’t always tap along with Fred-and-Ginger synchrony. Sometimes one person is “off.” And, when one is off, the dance is off.

And so it is when one partner is unhappy with the marriage but the other isn’t – or doesn’t seem to be.

Only when you are both willing to hit pause and reset does backwards-and-in-heels become possible again.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats